Wilkes-Barre Area moves forward on new high school, rejects second opinion

By Mark Guydish - [email protected] | September 11th, 2017 10:00 pm - updated: 10:01 pm.

WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board moved forward on plans to build a new consolidated high school in Plains Township, approving a revamped contract with the architectural firm that already drew up plans for a building elsewhere.

The board also rejected a call by opponents to bring in an outside firm for a second look at renovation costs for existing high schools.

Prior to the votes, Sam Troy, who said he will run as an independent board candidate this November, asked board members to justify support of the new high school. Board Member Ned Evans repeated estimated costs for renovation of the three existing schools from a 2014 feasibility study, but Troy angrily rejected the numbers as unfounded.

A key factor making renovation too costly is a claim that Meyers and Coughlin high schools would need expensive steel reinforcement against seismic activity to meet modern building codes. Attorney Kim Borland said he had requested any documents confirming that, but had not received a response within the time limit required by the state Right To Know law.

Superintendent Brian Costello read a letter he said was sent in response to a question by district-contracted engineer Tom Leonard asking the city if such reinforcement would be needed. The answer was yes, if alterations to the school exceeded certain criteria. Borland criticized Costello for not sending it to him via email earlier in the day.

Borland also repeated his concern that fencing along GAR Memorial High School — installed to protect people from possible falling masonry — puts students at risk because they must either walk along Sherman Street or must cross it to get to and from the school. The district has a structural engineer evaluating the building, removing some limestone panels to inspect the masonry holding them up.

Gary Salijko from the Apollo Group Inc., the firm hired as district construction manager, said preliminary reports show there are places where the facade material can no longer be supported and that lighter material will have to replace it. Told that the fencing will stay up along Sherman Street for at least two more months, Borland rebuked the board. “That’s unacceptable.”

The revised contract is with Williams Kinsman Lewis Architecture for the design of a new school in Plains Township. Kinsman and three other firms hired as the district “design team” have already designed a school originally intended to be built where Coughlin stands, but the Wilkes-Barre Zoning Hearing Board denied a needed variance.

The contract lowers the design fee, Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said. Kinsman and the other firms had been getting more than 5 percent construction costs. The new contract lowers that to 4.3 percent if construction costs run between $60 million and $90 million, and 4.2 percent if it is between $95 million and $105 million.

Those figures include land acquisition, furniture and fixtures, and other “soft costs.” Wendolowski said the contract also requires that hard construction costs not exceed $60.8 million once bids come in. If exceeded, the firms must redraw plans at their own cost.

The board also voted on a proposal made months ago by the Save Our Schools organization fighting to retain the three high school system. SOS has asked the board to bring in an outside firm to give a second opinion on renovation costs. The board voted 5-4 against the idea, with Board Members Joe Caffery and Ned Evans arguing multiple studies have been done by different firms with the same basic results: the renovations are too costly.

And the board learned that a leak in the ceiling of the Kistler Elementary swimming pool has caused some cement to fall into the pool. Salijko said an inspection and recommendation should be completed by the next meeting, adding that it may be possible to seal the cement and prevent further decay while the leak source is found.

School consolidation plans include expanding Kistler to accept grades seven and eight currently at Meyers, and those plans call for a new roof. That work had been delayed pending a potential appeal of zoning approval, but Wendolowski said no appeal had been filed, making the ruling technically final, pending reception of paperwork from the city.

Brian Costello, Wilkes-Barre Area superintendent, talks about the condition of Coughlin High School during a community meeting in the school's cafeteria. 8/30/17. Sean McKeag | Times Leader
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_TTL083117CoughlinTour2-1.jpgBrian Costello, Wilkes-Barre Area superintendent, talks about the condition of Coughlin High School during a community meeting in the school's cafeteria. 8/30/17. Sean McKeag | Times Leader

By Mark Guydish

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Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish